Chapter 1 1
I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing when I heard my father had died.”
“Okay. Do you want to explore that?”
I stared at Theresa, sitting in her leather wingback chair. She reminded me of the sleepy dormouse at Alice in Wonderland’s tea party or one of his ratty friends. She blinked a lot behind her little round glasses, and her lips were permanently pursed. She had great legs under the knee-length tweed skirt she was wearing and good hair, too. I decided she could be pretty if she wanted to be, but I knew she wasn’t interested in anything but looking intelligent.
“Electra? I’m losing you again.”
“Yeah, sorry, I was miles away.”
“Were you thinking about how you felt when your father died?”
As I couldn’t exactly tell her what I had been thinking, I nodded earnestly. “Yeah, I was.”
“I really can’t remember. Sorry.”
“You seem angry about his death, Electra. Why were you angry?”
“I’m not … I wasn’t. I mean, I honestly can’t remember.”
“You can’t remember how you felt at that moment?”
I watched her scribble something onto her notepad, which probably went along the lines of “refusing to deal with father’s death.” It was what the last shrink had said to me, and I was so totally dealing with it. As I’d learned over the years, they liked to find a reason for me being a screw-up, and then they’d take hold of it, just like a mouse with a piece of cheese, and nibble away at me until I agreed with them and talked shit just to keep them happy.
“So how are you feeling about Mitch?”
The phrases that came to mind to describe my ex would probably have Theresa reaching for her cell to warn the cops that there was a crazy woman on the loose, who wanted to blast away the balls of one of the world’s most famous rock stars. Instead, I smiled sweetly.
“I’m good. I’ve moved on now.”
“You were very angry with him the last time you came to see me, Electra.”
“Yeah, but I’m fine now. Really.”
“Well, that’s good news. And how about the drinking? Under control a little more?”
“Yes,” I lied again. “Listen, I’m gonna have to run to a meeting.”
“But we’re only halfway through the session, Electra.”
“I know, it’s a shame, but hey, that’s life.” I stood up and walked toward the door.
“Maybe I can fit you in again later this week? Speak to Marcia on your way out.”
“I will, thanks.” I was already closing the door behind me. I walked straight past Marcia, the receptionist, and headed for the elevator. It came almost immediately, and as I was whooshed downward, I closed my eyes—I hated any confined spaces—and laid my hot forehead against the cool marble interior.
Jeez, I thought, what is it with me? I’m so messed up that I can’t even tell my therapist the truth!
You’re too ashamed to tell anyone the truth … and how could she understand even if you did? I argued back to myself. She probably lives in a neat brownstone with her lawyer husband, has two kids and a refrigerator covered in cute magnets showing off their artwork. Oh, I added to myself as I climbed into the back of my limo, and one of those vomit-inducing photos of Mom and Dad with the kids, all wearing matching denim shirts, that they’ve blown up huge and hung behind their couch.
“Where to, ma’am?” the driver asked me over the intercom.
“Home,” I barked before grabbing a bottle of water from the minifridge, shutting it fast before I was tempted to explore the alcoholic options. I had the mother of all headaches, which no amount of painkillers had eased, and it was past five in the evening. It had been a great party the night before, though, from what I could remember, anyway. Maurice, my new best designer friend, had been in town and had dropped by for a few drinks with some of his New York playmates, who had then called others … I couldn’t remember going to bed and had been surprised to find a stranger in it with me when I’d woken up this morning. He was a beautiful stranger, at least, and after we’d gotten to know each other physically again, I’d asked him his name. Fernando had been a delivery driver for Walmart in Philly up until a few months back, when one of the fashion buyers had noticed him and told him to call a friend at a New York modeling agency. He said he’d be happy to walk me down a red carpet sometime soon—I’d learned the hard way that a shot of me on his arm would send Mr. Walmart’s career skyrocketing—so I’d gotten rid of him as soon as I could.
So what if you had told Mrs. Dormouse the truth, Electra? So what if you’d admitted that last night you were so off your face with liquor and coke that you could have slept with Santa and you wouldn’t have known about it? That the reason you couldn’t even begin to think about your father wasn’t because of his death but because you knew how ashamed he’d be of you … how ashamed he’d been of you?
At least when Pa Salt had been alive, I’d known he couldn’t see what I was doing, but now he was dead, he’d somehow become omnipresent; he could have been in the bedroom with me last night or even here in the limo right now …
I cracked and reached for a minivodka, then poured it down my throat, trying to forget the look of disappointment on Pa’s face the last time I’d seen him before he’d died. He’d come to New York to visit me, saying he had something to tell me. I’d avoided him until the last possible evening, when I had reluctantly agreed to have dinner with him. I’d arrived at Asiate, a restaurant just across Central Park, already tanked on vodka and uppers. I’d sat numbly opposite him throughout the meal, excusing myself to go to the ladies’ room to do a few bumps of coke whenever he tried to start conversations I didn’t want to pursue.
Once dessert had arrived, Pa had crossed his arms and regarded me calmly. “I’m extremely worried for you, Electra. You seem to be completely absent.”
“Well, you don’t understand the kind of pressure I’m under,” I’d snapped at him. “What it takes to be me!” To my shame, I had only vague memories of what had happened next or what he’d said, but I knew I’d stood up and walked out on him. So now I’d never even know what it was he’d wanted to tell me.
“Why do you give a shit, Electra?” I asked myself as I wiped my mouth and stuck the empty bottle in a pocket—my driver was new, and all I needed was a story in a newspaper saying I’d drunk the minibar dry. “He’s not even your real father, anyway.”
Besides, there was nothing I could do about it now. Pa was gone—like everyone else I’d loved in my life—and I had to get on with it. I didn’t need him, I didn’t need anybody …
“We’re here, ma’am,” said the driver through the intercom.
“Thanks. I’ll jump out,” I added, then did so, closing the limo door behind me. It was best to make my arrival at any place as inconspicuous as possible; other celebrities could wear disguises and get away with going to a local diner, but I was over six feet tall and pretty hard to miss in a crowd, even if I hadn’t been famous.
“Hi there, Electra!”
“Tommy,” I said, managing a smile as I walked beneath the canopy toward the entrance to my apartment building, “how are you today?”
“All the better for seeing you, ma’am. Did you have a good day?”
“Yeah, great, thank you.” I nodded as I looked down—and I mean down—at my number one fan. “See you tomorrow, Tommy.”
“You sure will, Electra. Not going out tonight?”
“No, it’s a quiet one in. Bye, now,” I said as I gave him a wave and walked inside.
At least he loves me, I mused as I collected my mail from the concierge and headed for the elevator. As the porter rode up with me simply because it was his job (I considered offering him my keys and mail to hold, as that was all I was carrying), I thought about Tommy. He stood sentinel outside the building most days and had done so for the past few months. At first it had freaked me out and I’d asked the concierge to get rid of him. Tommy had stood his ground—literally—and said that he had every right to stand on the sidewalk, that he wasn’t bothering anyone, and that all he wanted to do was to protect me. The concierge had encouraged me to call the cops and have him charged with stalking, but one morning I’d asked him his full name, then gone to do a bit of internet stalking myself. I’d discovered on Facebook that he was an army vet who’d won medals for bravery out in Afghanistan and that he had a wife and daughter in Queens. Now, rather than making me feel threatened, Tommy made me feel safe. Besides that, he was always respectful and polite, so I’d told the concierge to back off.
The porter stepped out of the elevator and let me pass. Then we did a kind of dance in which I needed to step back so that he could go ahead and lead the way to my penthouse apartment to open the door for me with his own master key.
“There we go, Miss D’Aplièse. Have a nice day, now.”
He nodded at me, and I saw zero warmth in his eyes. I knew that the staff here wished that I would disappear in a puff of smoke up a nonexistent chimney. Most of the other residents had been here since they were fetuses in their mothers’ stomachs, back when a woman of color, like me, would have been “privileged” to be their maid. They were all owner-occupiers, whereas I was a peasant: a tenant, albeit a rich one, allowed in on a lease because the old lady who’d lived here had died and her son had renovated the place, then tried to sell it at an exorbitant price. Due to something called the subprime crisis, he’d apparently failed to do so. Instead, he’d been reduced to selling the lease to the highest bidder—me. The price was crazy, but then so was the apartment, stuffed with modern artwork and every kind of electronic gadget you could imagine (I didn’t know how to work most of them), and the view from the terrace over Central Park was stunning.
If I needed a reminder of my success, this apartment was it. But what it reminds me of more than anything, I thought as I sank down into the couch that could provide a comfortable bed for at least two full-grown guys, is how lonely I am. Its size made even me feel small and delicate—and up here, right at the top of the building, very, very isolated.
My cell phone piped up from somewhere in the apartment, playing the song that had made Mitch a worldwide superstar; I’d tried to change the ringtone, but it hadn’t worked. If CeCe is dyslexic with words, then I sure am dyslexic with electronics, I thought as I went into the bedroom to grab it. I was relieved to see that the maid had changed the sheets on the enormous bed and everything was hotel-room perfect again. I liked the new maid my PA had found me; she’d signed a nondisclosure agreement like all the others to stop her blabbing to the media about any of my nastier habits. Even so, I shuddered to think what she—was it Lisbet?—had thought when she’d walked into my apartment this morning.
I sat on the bed and listened to my voice mails. Five were from my agent asking me to call her back urgently about tomorrow’s shoot for Vanity Fair, and the last message was from Amy, my new PA. She’d been with me for only three months, but I liked her.
“Hi, Electra, it’s Amy. I … well, I just wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed working for you, but I don’t think it’s gonna work out long term. I’ve handed my resignation letter in today to your agent, and I wish you luck in the future, and …”
“SHIT?!?” I screamed as I pressed “delete” and threw the cell across the room. “What the hell did I do to her?” I asked the ceiling, wondering why I felt so upset that a two-bit nobody, who had gone down on bended knee and begged me to give her a chance, had walked out on me three months later.
“?‘It’s been my dream to be in the fashion business since I was a little kid. Please, Miss D’Aplièse, I’ll work for you night and day, your life will be mine, and I swear I’ll never let you down.’?” I mimicked Amy’s whiny Brooklyn accent as I dialed my agent. There were only three things I couldn’t live without: vodka, cocaine, and a PA.
“Hi, Susie, I just heard Amy’s resigned.”
“Yes, it’s not great. She was shaping up well.” Susie’s British accent sounded crisp and businesslike.
“Yeah, I thought she was, too. Do you know why she’s gone?”
There was a pause on the line before she replied. “No. Anyway, I’ll get Rebekah on the case, and I’m sure we’ll have you a new one by the end of the week. Did you get my messages?”
“Yup, I did.”
“Well, don’t be late tomorrow. They want to shoot as the sun is coming up. A car will pick you up at four a.m., okay?”
“I heard you had quite a party last night.”
“It was fun, yeah.”
“Well, no partying tonight, Electra. You need to be fresh for tomorrow. It’s the cover shot.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be in bed by nine like a good little girl.”
“Okay. Sorry, I’ve got Lagerfeld on the other line. Rebekah will be in touch with a list of suitable PAs. Ciao.”
“Ciao,” I mimicked into the cell as the line went dead. Susie was one of the only people on the planet who would dare hang up on me. She was the most powerful modeling agent in New York and ran all the big names in the industry. She’d spotted me when I was sixteen. At the time, I’d been working in Paris as a waitress, having been expelled from my third school in about as many years. I’d told Pa that it was pointless his trying to find me another school because I’d only end up getting expelled from there, too. To my surprise, he hadn’t made a fuss.
I remembered how astonished I’d been that he hadn’t been angrier at yet another of my failures. Just kind of disappointed, I suppose, which had taken the wind out of my sails.
“I thought I’d go traveling or something,” I’d suggested to him. “Learn through life experience.”
“I agree that most of what you need to know to be a success in life doesn’t necessarily come through the academic process,” he’d said, “but because you’re so bright, I’d hoped you’d at least get some qualifications. You’re a little young to be off by yourself. It’s a big wide world out there, Electra.”
“I can take care of myself, Pa,” I’d said firmly.
“I’m sure you can, but what will you do to fund your travels?”
“I’ll get a job, of course,” I’d said with a shrug. “I thought I’d head for Paris first.”
Pa had nodded. “Excellent choice. It’s an incredible city.”
As I’d watched him across his big desk in the study, I’d thought he’d looked almost dreamy and sad. Yup, definitely sad.
“Well, now,” he’d continued, “why don’t we compromise? You want to leave school, which I understand, but I’m concerned about my youngest daughter heading off into the world at such a tender age. Marina has some contacts in Paris. I’m sure she could help you sort out a safe place to stay. Take the summer there; then we’ll regroup and decide where you go next.”
“Okay, sounds like a plan,” I’d agreed, still amazed that he hadn’t fought harder for me to finish my education. As I’d stood up to leave, I’d decided that he’d either washed his hands of me or was giving me just enough rope to hang myself with. Anyway, Ma had called some contacts, and I’d ended up in a sweet little studio overlooking the rooftops of Montmartre. It had been miniscule, and I’d had to share the bathroom with a load of foreign exchange kids who were in town to improve their French, but it had been mine.
I remembered that first delicious taste of independence as I’d stood in my tiny room the night I arrived and realized there was no one to tell me what to do. There was also no one to cook for me, so I’d taken myself off to a café just along the street, sat down at a table outside, and lit up a cigarette as I studied the menu. I’d ordered French onion soup and a glass of wine, and the waiter hadn’t even batted an eyelid at me smoking or ordering alcohol. Three glasses of wine later, I’d had the confidence to go up to the manager and ask him if he had any vacancies for a waitress. Twenty minutes after that, I’d walked the few hundred yards back to my studio with a job. One of my proudest moments had been the call to Pa on the pay phone along the hall the next morning. To give him credit, he’d sounded just as thrilled as when my sister Maia had won a place at the Sorbonne.
Four weeks later, I’d served Susie, now my modeling agent, a croque monsieur, and the rest was history …
Why am I looking back all the time? I asked myself as I retrieved my cell to listen to the rest of my messages. And why do I keep thinking about Pa?
“Mitch … Pa …” I muttered as I waited for the voice mail to spill its beans. “They’re gone, Electra, along with Amy as of today, and you just have to move on.”
“My dearest Electra! How are you? I am back in New York again … What are you doing tonight? Fancy sharing a bottle of Cristal and some chow mein dans ton lit avec moi? I’m yearning for you. Give me a call back as soon as you can.”
Despite my low mood, I couldn’t help but smile. Zed Eszu was an enigma in my life. He was hugely wealthy, well connected, and—despite his lack of height and the fact that he wasn’t my usual type at all—incredible in bed; we’d been hooking up regularly for three years. It had all stopped when I had gotten serious with Mitch, but I’d reinstated him a few weeks ago, and there was no doubt he’d given my ego the boost it had needed.
Were we in love? It was a total no, for me anyway, but we ran with the same crowd in New York and, best of all, when we were alone together we spoke in French. Like Mitch, he wasn’t impressed by who I was, which was rare these days and somehow comforting.
I stared at the phone, debating whether to ignore Zed and follow Susie’s instructions for an early night or whether to call him and enjoy some company. It was a no-brainer, so I called Zed and told him to come on over. While I was waiting for him, I took a shower, then dressed in my favorite silk kimono, which had been designed especially for me by an up-and-coming Japanese atelier. I then drank what felt like a gallon of water to counteract any drinking or bad stuff I might do when he arrived.
The concierge phone beeped to announce Zed’s presence, and I told the concierge to send him right up. He arrived at my door with a giant bouquet of my favorite white roses and the promised bottle of Cristal champagne.
“Bonsoir, ma belle Electra,” he said in his strange clipped French as he unloaded the flowers and champagne and kissed me on both cheeks. “Comment tu vas??”
“I’m good,” I answered as I eyed the champagne greedily. “Shall I open it?”
“I think that is my job. Can I take my jacket off first?”
“But before that,” he said, dipping into his jacket pocket and handing me a velvet box, “I saw this and thought of you.”
“Thanks,” I said, sitting down on the couch and tucking my irritatingly long legs underneath me as I stared at the box in my hands like an excited child. Zed often bought me presents; ironically, given his vast wealth, they were rarely flashy but always something thoughtful and interesting. I lifted the lid and saw a ring nestling inside. The stone was oval-shaped and of a soft buttery yellow hue.
“It is amber,” he said as he watched me studying the way it caught the light of the chandelier above us. “Try it on.”
“Which finger should I put it on?” I teased as I looked up at him.
“Whichever you prefer, ma chère, but if I was going to make you my wife, I think I might do a little better than that. I am sure that you know your Greek namesake has an association with amber.”
“Really? No, I don’t.” I watched him as he popped the cork on the champagne. “Like what?”
“Well, the Greek word for ‘amber’ was electron, and legend has it that the sun’s rays were trapped within the stone. A Greek philosopher noticed that if two pieces were rubbed together, they created friction, which created an energy … Your name couldn’t suit you better.” He smiled as he placed a glass of champagne in front of me.
“Are you saying I create friction?” I smiled back. “The question is, did I grow into my name, or did it grow into me? Santé.”
“Santé.” We clinked our glasses, and he sat down next to me.
“You are thinking to yourself, did I bring another gift?”
“Then look underneath the lining of the box.”
I did so, and sure enough, tucked underneath the slim slice of velvet that had held the ring was a small plastic packet.
“Thanks, Zed,” I said as I pulled the packet open, then dipped a finger into its contents like a child with a honey pot and rubbed some on my gums.
“Good, eh?” he asked as I tipped a little out onto the table, detached the short straw from the packet, and took up a noseful.
“Mmm, very,” I agreed. “Want some?”
“You know I don’t. So how have you been?”
“Oh … okay.”
“You do not sound sure, Electra, and you look tired.”
“It’s been busy,” I said as I took a large gulp of my champagne. “I was on a shoot in Fiji last week, and I’m flying to Paris next week.”
“Maybe you need to slow down a little. Take a break.”
“Says the guy who told me he spends more nights sleeping on his private jet than he does in his bed,” I teased him.
“Then maybe we should both slow down. Can I tempt you to a week on my yacht? It’s moored in Saint Lucia for the next couple of months before I have it sailed to the Med for the summer.”
I sighed. “I wish. I have a packed schedule until June.”
“June, then. We can sail around the Greek islands.”
“Maybe.” I shrugged, not taking him seriously. He often discussed plans when we were together that never came to anything, and more to the point, nor would I want them to. Zed was just great for a night’s company and some physical action, but any more than that and he’d begin to irritate me with his fastidiousness and unbelievable arrogance.
The concierge phone beeped again, and Zed stood up to answer it. “Send it up immediately, thank you.” He poured us both some more champagne. “We are having Chinese, and I promise you, it will be the best chow mein you have ever tasted.” He smiled. “So how are your sisters?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been too busy lately to call them. Ally did have a baby, though—a little boy. She’s named him Bear, which is really cute. Come to think of it, I’m meant to be seeing them all in June back at Atlantis; we’re taking Pa’s boat out to the Greek islands to lay a wreath where Ally thinks his coffin was dropped into the sea. Your dad was found on a beach close by, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, but like you, I do not want to think of my father’s death because it upsets me,” Zed replied sharply. “I only think to the future.”
“I know, but it is a coincidence—”
The buzzer rang, and Zed went to answer the door.
“Now, Electra,” he said as he carried two boxes through to the kitchen. “Come and help me with these.”